24 April 2024

NBS’ Construction Leaders’ Summit 2023 brought together some of the brightest minds in the industry. Across a wide range of talks covering sustainability, safety, innovation and more, one message was clear: it is time for everyone in the sector to rethink how we do things. 

In an engaging presentation focusing on this concept, Bryden Wood’s Jaimie Johnston, MBE, talked about new ways of approaching design to tackle the changing demands of society. The presentation Rethinking Design and Construction contained some truly valuable insights that both specifiers and manufacturers should take note of. 

We are already at the tipping point.

Jaimie opened his presentation by sharing a staggering statistic from the UN, which predicts that the world’s global population will increase from 8 billion in 2022 to 9.7 billion in 2050 and to 10.4 billion by the mid-2080s. Our single greatest focus must be creating the infrastructure needed to support this growth in a sustainable way.  

“A century of building the world project by project has dispersed skills and capabilities into commercial and technical silos which means project delivery is costly and slow. The traditional static ‘project by project’ principle is simply unfit for the job.” 

Jaimie discussed the urgent need for a new, transformative way of delivering critical infrastructure that employs a systematic approach, automation and manufacturing in place of traditional bespoke construction. 

Our advances in sectors such as sustainable energy, pharmaceuticals, life sciences and communications, explained Jaimie, are happening faster than our ability to deploy them at scale. Only by harnessing the efficiency of digital tools and manufacturing processes do we stand a chance of being able to deliver the infrastructure we so desperately need.

“There’s no more room for secret-keeping or working in silos – the industry must collaborate as much as possible to improve as fast as it can in terms of sustainability and innovation.”

Inspiring a new ‘model’ approach

Referencing the automotive industry, Jaimie discussed how manufacturers tend to have a shared build plate as the foundation for each car, with only the additional elements dictating the final model. In construction, we have often thought of specific buildings as having their own unique needs – but Jaimie asks whether there are more commonalities than previously thought. 

Bryden Wood plotted the government’s building pipeline to demonstrate this, looking for typologically similar structures. As an example, prisons, student accommodation and army barracks aren’t that different – they are cellular repeatable rooms with a residential function. 

Drawing out these typological similarities means being able to create a shared ‘kit’ of repeatable components, processes, and equipment for common project areas across:

  • education;
  • residential;
  • healthcare;
  • laboratories;
  • custodial; and
  • commercial.

The same principle can also be applied to programmes of work requiring large-scale roll-out of similar assets, such as data centres, energy plants or pharmaceutical/ life science facilities. 

This new approach results in a streamlined workflow that starts with an integrated system design with a full digital library, a rule set and a defined list of repeatable components. 

This would mean the government, for example, wouldn’t need to procure new materials for individual building types but instead purchase ‘kits’ of shared materials that can be used for any structure within that typological group.

This way of working would break the traditional relationship between time, cost and quality. It would mean:

  • Requiring less overall material, which in turn reduces carbon footprint.
  • Fewer components, which means supporting a more resilient supply chain and working in economies of scale.
  • Standardised processes would improve safety and productivity – diversifying the sector to include non-construction operatives, reducing reliance on trades and workmanship because overall lifelong performance will be more secure, and improving the potential of automation. 

This approach would be hugely impactful to specifiers, who could use these kits of parts as a ‘customisable template’ when planning new projects. Manufacturers, meanwhile, would be able to win more business by designing products specified into these kits. 

This is, said Jaimie, a new, systematic approach to a large-scale, repeatable need.

What about specialist design requirements? 

Whilst a standardised approach to construction has indisputable benefits, there is still concern that certain sectors have unique needs that can’t be catered for by a pre-defined ‘kit’. Hospitals, for example, have specific requirements for surgery rooms, labs and other special-use cases. 

Jaimie addresses this directly in his presentation, discussing how even in a specialist facility, the overall structure is still typologically like other facilities of a similar size. The majority of a hospital building, for example, is still comprised of components shared by other structures, such as hallways and storage rooms.

Even if designs only use a standardised kit of parts for the common areas of a structure, most of the benefits above will still apply, with the added caveat of allowing additional time to design the more bespoke aspects. 

Reducing friction

Bryden Wood’s early projects using this approach have focused on the superstructure first. This is where most existing automated techniques can fall apart, as the superstructure is traditionally designed and therefore may have slight errors or size differences due to the nature of human workmanship. Jaimie mentioned how facade manufacturers often spend lots of time on site measuring and correcting pre-fab projects because of issues with the superstructure. 

By creating sets of shared components for each type of superstructure, Bryden Wood has removed the need for human interventions. Each project instead uses a shared system of pre-defined components. Many of them are then automatically sent to robotic manufacturers, further removing the risk of human error. 

The benefits go beyond simply reducing the risk of human error during design. Because components are predefined and simplified, contractors on site will be able to improve construction timelines and improve health and safety rapidly. Additionally, Bryden Wood estimates a 30% reduction in embodied carbon. 

Finally, Jaimie talked about how a more automated, standardised approach also allows for design innovation. He talked about how his team have experimented with reducing floor height whilst maintaining building function, which reduces overall running costs and carbon emissions and is highly valuable in space-sensitive environments like London. 

The role of NBS in automation

Having a smaller number of things to configure means having less information to control. As opposed to current practices where every project is unique, Jaimie’s suggested approach will make it easier for specifiers and manufacturers alike to quickly spec projects and improve operational efficiency on both sides. 

Bryden Wood is currently producing ‘Reference Design Specifications’ in NBS Chorus, which serve as configurable templates that can be expanded, contracted or configured to match the specifics of a project. 

NBS Chorus helps alleviate much of the manual time and effort associated with planning a specification and ensuring that all relevant technical data is included. By offering a digital tool that allows specifiers and manufacturers to share product and project information and collaborate directly on specifications, NBS Chorus lays the groundwork for a standardised digital system.

If this approach becomes the new normal, manufacturers must be involved in aiding specification at an early stage in order to become the reliable option and therefore the de facto choice for component ‘kits’. 

Whilst everything we’ve just covered is not yet standard practice, it highlights that approaches are changing quickly, and the current ways of working in construction will not last. 

For manufacturers, the faster you can adapt to digital innovation and offer specifiers the support they need through tools such as NBS Source and NBS Chorus, the better the likelihood of having your products specified. As an architect, you need to consider how working with more innovative manufacturers can help your designs become more efficient, sustainable and safe.

Find out how NBS can help you